On target? while Haiti mission has spotlighted the air force's capability, the navy's shortcomings still need to be addressed.
When they've been in need of it in the past, I've been the first one over the boards, dropping the gloves and pounding on their helmets, but in this instance I'm prepared to give credit where credit's due, to both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defence Minister Peter MacKay. They were uncharacteristically quick off the draw in pledging large-scale aid and mobilizing a military response effort.
What was even more impressive was the fact that our heavily engaged armed forces, which are supporting both the expeditionary force in Kandahar and the Olympic security operations in Vancouver, were able to mount such a major effort so quickly. Within just hours of the tragedy, the reconnaissance party from the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) was airborne and en route to Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
The highlight of the rapid response was the deployment of Canada's new C-17 heavy-lift aircraft. Their tremendous cargo capacity enabled the air force to transport two helicopters--complete with ground crew and equipment--to Haiti and begin ferrying out hundreds of Canadian nationals seeking evacuation home to Canada.
Those with good memories will recall that this kind of effective, immediate response from Canada was not always the case. In December 2004, as the enormity of the tsunami disaster first began to sink in, Canadians were shocked and disappointed to learn that the limitations of our military inventory made any sort of significant response all but impossible.
At that juncture our air force did not possess a strategic airlift capability and our aging fleet of C-130 Hercules tactical air transports were well past their best-before dates. After lengthy delays and dithering, the air force was forced to lease cargo space from a civilian charter company utilizing Russian Antonov aircraft. Of course, at that moment in time every nation in the world participating in the relief effort was looking to charter those same aircraft. Not only did this mean it was a seller's market and we had to pay top dollar, it also meant we were using cargo capacity that would have otherwise been used to deliver aid, to transport our own military hardware and personnel.
However, the warning lights illuminating our air force's airlift shortcomings had been lit up five years prior to the tsunami, but no one had paid them any heed. In September 1999, during violent clashes in East Timor, the UN had scrambled to mount an emergency relief and security operation. Spearheading Canada's effort, the air force embarrassingly took four tries to get one old Hercules transport aircraft to East Timor, while a second was grounded in Fiji for 11 days waiting for two bolts to be delivered. When the media reported this sorry state of affairs, the military brass tried to stem the public backlash by blaming the media. In a letter to the National Post, then deputy head of the air force, Maj.-Gen. Peter Gartenburg blamed the air force's shortcomings on media criticism. "When people's self-esteem is constantly chipped away, morale will inevitably degrade," he wrote.
In a courageous move given the disparity in rank, Lt. Ronald Goldstein, a flight surgeon based in Petawawa, penned his own public rebuttal to Gartenburg. "Do not blame the press for making public the shortfalls of the Canadian Forces. What would greatly improve our morale is if the government allocated the appropriate budget for modern equipment and more personnel."
The air force has evidently moved forward from what former CDS Rick Hillier described as "a decade of darkness," but the crisis in Haiti has also served to illustrate the limitations of Canada's navy as people are questioning why a destroyer (Athabaskan) and a frigate (Halifax) are being dispatched instead of a fleet support ship. Close watchers of the navy realize that our two aging auxiliary oil replenishment ships--Protecteur and Preserver--are long overdue for retirement. The multi-billion-dollar replacement program for these vessels, the Joint Support Ship (JSS), was announced by the Harper government in July 2006, but then went completely aground amidst contracting disputes in August 2008.
Let's hope the navy brass publicly salute the efforts our sailors are contributing to the Haiti relief effort, while privately counselling their political masters as to what more they could have done with a Joint Support Ship. (Not to mention new helicopters to replace the 49-year-old Sea King fleet.)
Scott Taylor publisher